In-Depth Interview With George Clooney For ‘The Descendants’
From Alexander Payne, the creator of the Oscar-winning ‘Sideways,’ set in Hawaii, ‘The Descendants’ is a sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic journey for Matt King (George Clooney) an indifferent husband and father of two girls, who is forced to re-examine his past and embrace his future when his wife suffers a boating accident off of Waikiki. The event leads to a rapprochement with his young daughters while Matt wrestles with a decision to sell the family’s land handed down from Hawaiian royalty and missionaries. Alongside George Clooney, the film stars Judy Greer, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster, Shailene Woodley, Mary Birdsong, Nick Krause and Amara Miller. ‘The Descendants’ is out now in the US, and is set for a January 20th release in the UK.
You’ve had two films out in cinemas the last few months, one of which you also directed in ‘The Ides of March,‘ which character was more challenging for you?
George Clooney: The character in ‘The Descendants’ was a lot more challenging to do as an actor. When you are directing yourself, you are really only just doing a part that you know exactly what needs to be done in it, I’m sort of just filling a gap that I need in the film – which is I needed that Candidate, I knew what he needed to be and I felt I fit the bill so I knew how to do that. This is a character that you are in a very uncomfortable zone, but with very comfortable people, it’s a tricky role to play. This was a more difficult part, but I had a much better director so I was very lucky in those terms (laughs).
This is very human performance, mixing emotion with humour, there’s a lot of depth to it. How hard is it to get that right balance?
George Clooney: First you have to have a really good script, that does all of those things for you, and then you have one of the best directors in the business handling that. Then you just kind of put yourself in his hands and say, “Too much? 15% less existential realism?” He really takes care of all of that. I found it challenging only in the sense that I wanted to serve the material very well. It’s a tricky piece, the movie basically starts with the death of your wife. It’s like a coming of age film, unfortunately the person who’s coming of age is a 50 year old man (laughs). Whenever the script is really good the work is a lot easier.
You can see that so much is going on with your character internally, how did Alexander Payne’s direction help with that?
George Clooney: Alexander Payne helped a lot. You can make a really bad movie out of a good script, but you really can’t make a good movie out of a bad script – it starts with the screenplay. It was a really well written screenplay, then you surround yourself with wonderful actors, then you sort of put yourself in the hands of a director, he or she says, “More this, less of that, try more of this, try less of that.” When you see the film, Alexander’s specialty is his ability to switch on a dime funny to really sad – it’s hard to do, it’s really hard to do well. It’s hard as an actor to judge that, only the director knows what he or she wants….you really have to go, “You tell me when I’ve gone too far, or not far enough.” So honestly, I wish there was credit to be taken for that, but it really is about the screenplay and director in certain circumstances.
When you have two films that have been received so well, the media are certain to talk awards and competition, what are your thoughts on that?
George Clooney: I think that it’s a very odd thing to think of competition when you’re talking about…..what I still consider art. I don’t ever think of it as competing, I don’t ever think of competing with actors or filmmakers at all. Obviously we’d like both films to be well liked, we try to make films that we’d like to see – they’re not easy to get made, they’re harder to get made, you have to keep the budget low to get them made. But at the end of the day I don’t really worry about competition because I don’t really think of it that way, I don’t think I’m in a race with anybody.
You‘ve worked on a number of acclaimed films in succession, what do you look for as an actor when choosing a role, and what drew you to this particular movie?
George Clooney: First and foremost I learned after a series of very bad mistakes in film, early on in my career. I learned I should probably read a good screenplay every once in a while before I say yes (laughs). You can make a bad film out of a good script, but your not gonna make a good film out of a bad script, so I needed to start with a good screenplay. With this particular film I wanted to work with Alexander Payne for a long time, we had dinner in Toronto, he said he was going to be sending me a script. I sort of thought I would have done it no matter what the script was (laughs), because I hadn’t seen him miss yet as a filmmaker. Then I read the screenplay and thought wow. There are really only two elements solidify the choices I make, and that’s director and screenplay.
I’d done ‘Batman & Robin,’ ‘The Peacemaker’ kind of run….you know, when you first start getting work as an actor you just take jobs. I’d been on a lot of TV series and I got a couple of films and was very excited. I’m calling everyone and I’m like, “I got Batman, wooooooooh!” And then I started to understand that I was going to be held responsible for not just the role I was gonna get to play, but also for the films that were gonna get made. The next three scripts I worked on were ‘Out of Sight,’ ‘Three Kings’ and ‘O Brother Where Art Thou,’ which were all very good screenplays. So since then I’ve really tried to focus on the best screenplay as possible, then the second thing I do is try to make sure the directors I’m working with are on the same page, and we want to do the same kind of films. You can really protect yourself as an actor if you work with really good people, it can hide a lot of flaws (laughs).
There are a lot of actors making the transition from TV to movies, can you talk a little about the evolution of your career and the transition you made, at what point did you sort of turn your vision to the big-screen?
George Clooney: You think in terms of….even when you are on some pretty crappy TV shows, I was pretty bad in them so I can’t just make fun of the shows (laughs), but you always think of yourself as a film actor, a film actor that just happens to be doing this crappy TV show right now, you think soon you’ll have this great film career, that I wasn’t having at that time. There’s a period of time where you are just trying to get a job, and then you’ve gotta get lucky – ER was lucky. We were originally going to be on Friday nights at 10 o’clock, we wouldn’t have done a third of the numbers we done on Thursday nights at 10 o’clock – that’s luck. When they talk about big TV ratings, 17 million for a show, we were doing 35-45 million people a week. So immediately I went from sort of obscurity, to being able to get a film. I wasn’t able to before, I auditioned a lot but I didn’t get them. That was luck, it had very little to do with me, I was the same actor I was all that time. Then things change, then you realise you have to take responsibility for the roles, because you’re going to be held responsible for the whole movie if your headlining. If your name is above the title, you have to pay attention to not just your part, but the film, so that was part of it, I got some good couple of lessons with some…not great films (laughs). And then I realised I’m going to be held responsible so I have to pay attention to the films, and that’s when things changed. I had a really good run right after that with ‘Out of Sight,’ ‘Three Kings’ and ’O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ Where it was like, “Oh, I get it, I’ve got to work with really good filmmakers on really good screenplays.” That makes a big difference.
How has directing over the last decade changed you as an actor?
George Clooney: I always think in terms of what the director needs, not just for this scene, but for the film. You really learn that from episodic television, when your doing episodic television for long periods of time you have different directors coming in every week. I’m doing ER, so every week I’ve got a kid who’s going to be on a gurney, some kids going to be dieing. So every director would come in and go like, “You have to cry a little bit.” But then you think, “I’ll be crying in 22 episodes, this will be too weepy.” So you have to adjust towards the long term, thinking it all the way through, from beginning to end – that works also in film, you’ll understand that there’s some scenes that you’ll have to lose in order to win something in the end. A really good director will constantly keep pointing you that way, but I also think it’s your job as an actor to understand that there are scenes that you do, particularly when you’re the lead, where other people get to come in and steal, and you have to let them. I understand that, but working with a really good director always reminds you of that.
Who would be some of your inspirations with regards to directing, and who gave you advice, directorial advice?
George Clooney: Before I did my first film I read Sidney Lumet’s book on directing, which is really helpful. It teaches you some short-cut tricks. For example set a shot, the very first shot you shoot, set it even if it is something you would never use in the film, set it, do one take, cut, then move on. Everybody in the crew and cast sits up and gets nervous because they think, ‘Oh, this could happen really quickly,’ (laughs) it changes the chemistry on the set. I thought that was very helpful, especially for a first time director when I was doing ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.’ Also it doesn’t hurt to watch some of his films, ‘Network’ is a masterpiece, I think he had as good a decade as anybody. Also Alan J. Pakula, 70’s film directors.
Clint Eastwood for example, another actor and director, he could point concretely to Sergio Leone and Don Siegel as people who’s films he frequently appeared in and from whom he studied. I would have imagined you had that a little bit with Steven Soderberg?
George Clooney: Yes. With Steven and I, after we did ‘Out of Sight,’ we put this company together. The idea was, he wanted to infuse back into the studio system what they had learned and done very well from the mid-60’s to the mid-70’s, the independent vibe. In the 90’s he wanted to reinvest that back into the studio system – and I liked the idea of non-linear story telling, that kind of thing. So we tried to push that back in. I learned a lot about not having to tell the story from the beginning to the end, maybe picking it up in the middle. And also less is more, you can trust the audience to figure stuff out, he is very good at that. He was a huge help for me all along.
For me, some of the most powerful moments in this film are the silent moments, the dialogueless moments….
George Clooney: Oh yeah, we live in an age and a time now when we’re trying to show 500 things going on at the same time. You’ll turn on Bloomberg Television and there’s 50 things going on. I find that silence and stillness…..if your flipping the channels and you see someone just staring at the camera and it‘s quiet, nothings going on, you tend to stop now – that seems to be the new “unusual” thing to see. I really enjoy the quiet moments in film, you have to earn them though, Alexander is so good at earning those moments. For example the very end of the film, with us just sitting together, you earn it because you couldn’t have done that scene that long in the beginning of the movie, people would have gotten up and left (laughs). To watch the stillness of that particular scene speaks volumes.
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